A very tricky sort of love story is put across with some skillful high-wire walking in “Secretary.” In this considerable expansion of Mary Gaitskill’s short yarn about a boss-secretary relationship that evolves into a mutually satisfying S&M matchup, the filmmakers are deeply interested in getting to the psychological roots of the characters, and the picture’s relative success in doing so makes the outre goings-on here not only dramatically palatable but emotionally plausible. Touchy theme and cloistered nature of the piece relegate this well-acted picture to a specialized realm even within the specialized market for domestic art films, but this winner of a Special Jury Prize for “originality” at Sundance deserves a shot at catching on with that sliver of the theatrical audience that would respond to it before heading off into cable- and home-viewing markets.
A significant advance from Steven Shainberg’s first feature, the murky and inert 1996 Jim Thompson adaptation “Hit Me,” new pic benefits from having been worked out with great care and insight from the point of view of the title character’s highly particular psychological makeup. For this, one should presumably credit not only the director and Gaitskill but scenarist Erin Cressida Wilson, a playwright who, in adapting the story with Shainberg’s guidance, displays the sort of attention to character detail that is much more common in writing for the stage than in most contempo screenwriting.
An opening glimpse of a young woman gracefully tending to office chores while handcuffed to a portable workout bar serves as the tantalizing teaser to a tale that properly begins six months earlier when Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is checked out of a mental institution. Surrounded by her undoubtedly abusive alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie) and infantalizing mother (Lesley Ann Warren), Lee retreats into old habits, which involve extremes repped by girlish accessories on the one hand and self-inflicted pain/pleasure (such as putting a hot tea kettle to her thigh) on the other.
But determined in her naive way to strike out on her own, the semi-gawky, semi-attractive Lee takes a secretarial job with E. Edward Grey (James Spader), an eccentric, grimly serious attorney who warns Lee that her work will be dull. She doesn’t mind, nor does she protest when he gives her some demeaning chores, such as sifting through the Dumpster for some missing documents. No, this is the start of Lee’s new life, and she’s game.
While the behavioral and psychological underpinnings are being established by the script and actors, Shainberg works to set the action apart from absolute reality by stylizing the settings. With exteriors lensed on anonymous Southern California locations to avoid any specific sense of place, pic is dominated by Edward’s weirdly painted and decorated rooms, which are unlike any legal offices heretofore seen either in the movies or in life. Amy Danger’s provocative production design is initially helpful in setting the off-kilter feeling of unease, but with time it comes to seem calculatedly oppressive and finally over-art directed to a distracting degree.
To further foster the notion that she’s putting her life on a track toward normalcy, Lee takes up with an old friend from high school, Peter (Jeremy Davies), a hippieish, ineffectual nice guy who would love to marry Lee. She doesn’t discourage him but is clearly far more fascinated by the man at the office who is so demanding of her.
“Secretary” becomes a movie the late Kenneth Tynan would have loved 50 minutes in. After having become increasingly critical of Lee for her sloppy work habits, Edward pushes to a new level of punishment one day when he makes her bend over a desk and slowly spanks her — but hard — as she reads a letter aloud. Next time round, she willingly consents to getting down on all fours and being saddled.
But Lee is thrown for a loop when the ever-unpredictable Edward abruptly calls a halt to the games, throwing her professional life into doubt and her personal life into chaos; so profoundly moved by someone having discovered her secret source of satisfaction, and so utterly frustrated at her sudden lack of access to its sole provider, Lee tries spanking herself, to no avail, and even tries to instruct Peter in the fine art, although he’s no better at this than he is in regular lovemaking.
Third-act build-up to Lee’s all-out attempt to connect with the inscrutable Edward is unduly protracted (whole film could stand a bit of a trim), but it ultimately pays off in a way that is resonant, distinctively romantic and very gratifying from the point of view of the main characters. By the end, Lee has taken a long journey from a total lack of self-awareness to deep satisfaction, and on a road that is unusual to say the least.
Film’s interest lies in this psycho/sexual awakening, and anyone seeking kinky bondage kicks will leave needing to find relief elsewhere. In a very demanding role demanding a vast emotional range from clueless innocent to confident role player and emotional adventurer, Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the way she reveals how Lee slowly accumulates the knowledge to realize what she wants and gathers the courage to get it.
Spader’s Edward has elements of some of the thesp’s other weirdo roles, and for most of the time the character is meant to be unreachable and unfathomable, but the precision and controlled intensity with which the actor puts over the key breakthrough scenes is crucial to maintaining the film’s conviction. Supporting perfs are one-dimensionally serviceable, and behind-the-scenes contributions are solid.